Round One

October 03, 2004

SO, IT SEEMS that even in this heavily scripted, tightly controlled presidential campaign, surprises are still possible. The first of three debates between the contenders brought several:

The cocky, confident president was off his game in the encounter last week; the sometimes confusing challenger found a clear, sharp voice; and the debate itself rose far above predictions of dueling stump speeches.

Despite rigid rules, the thoughtful exchange revealed important distinctions between the candidates on policy as well as the intangible qualities of leadership. Underdog John Kerry's performance was so strong it will likely tighten a race that President Bush had appeared on the verge of winning, and should spark greater interest in the next face-off between the two this week.

Most of Thursday night's 90-minute session was dominated by the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism, which Mr. Bush insists are one and the same. Senator Kerry was the most effective he's ever been in arguing not only that the conflicts are different, but that Mr. Bush's decision to launch a poorly planned, inadequately staffed strike on Iraq without broad international support has set back the drive to thwart terrorism.

The president clung to his mantra that any attack on the rationale or conduct of the Iraq war undermines U.S. troops there, as if to suggest that once a war is launched it is by definition beyond criticism. With violence escalating in Iraq, Mr. Bush's determined optimism seemed out of touch.

Mr. Bush may have been poorly served by the many months he has spent on the campaign trail, giving a standard speech to audiences screened to ensure they would be adoringly friendly. He had trouble responding gracefully to Mr. Kerry's respectful but skewering barbs, and his face was often a study in petulance.

The senator was ready for him, though, when Mr. Bush tried to hammer home the notion that Mr. Kerry sends "mixed messages," offering as evidence at one point the senator's tortured explanation for voting both for and against versions of an $87 billion military spending bill.

"I made a mistake in how I talk about the war," Mr. Kerry acknowledged, "but the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?"

Elections tend to be more about the future than the past, however, and it's not at all certain that Mr. Kerry has yet made the case that Americans will fare better with him in the White House instead of the incumbent.

Polls suggest many voters feel comfortable with Mr. Bush's folksy self-assurance, even if they don't always agree with him.

But Mr. Kerry sailed over the critical hurdle of appearing presidential on national security matters. As the debate topics turn to domestic and economic issues in the weeks ahead, the challenger will get the chance to convince Americans he can not only keep them safe but improve the quality of their lives as well.

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